KAMPALA, Uganda, January 7 (UNHCR) - The fighting that erupted in South Sudan in mid-December between government troops and opposition forces has forced more than 23,500 people to seek shelter in neighbouring Uganda. "They are now crossing at a rate of up to 2,500 people a day," said UNHCR spokesperson Melissa Fleming.
While grateful to the Ugandan government for recognizing them all as refugees, UNHCR said it was struggling with its partners to provide enough water and adequate sanitation at transit centres and reception centres in the Arua and Adjumani districts of the West Nile region, north-western Uganda.
As of Monday, 23,546 South Sudanese refugees had arrived in Uganda. These new arrivals come at a time when UNHCR's Uganda office is trying to cope with a continuing influx of refugees from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. "We still have 8,000 new Congolese arrivals at three reception centres in western Uganda. So, our staff and our supplies are stretched," Fleming said in Geneva, citing information from colleagues in Kampala.
Meanwhile, smaller but growing numbers of South Sudanese refugees are also fleeing to other neighbouring countries. More than 5,300 refugees have been registered in Ethiopia - though the number is likely higher as the remote border area is challenging to access.
In north-west Kenya's Kakuma Refugee Camp, where as many as 300 South Sudanese are now arriving daily, UNHCR staff had registered 3,173 new arrivals by Sunday evening. The situation in Sudan remains less clear. At least several hundred South Sudanese have crossed the border, and perhaps several thousand. But with many groups, including nomads and rebels, active in the area, it is difficult to know exactly how many are refugees.
Inside South Sudan, UNHCR is operating with a reduced staff of 200 people because of the fighting and insecurity throughout much of the country. But the agency continues to supply services to some 230,000 existing refugees at 10 refugee camps in South Sudan.
"We have also been taking on increased responsibilities for the 57,000 civilians taking refuge in 10 UN compounds throughout the country. We are helping lead efforts to protect especially vulnerable people like women and children. And we have brought in experts in areas such as site planning and camp management," Fleming noted.
On Monday, a chartered flight arrived in the South Sudan capital, Juba, carrying essential relief items from UNHCR's stockpiles in Nairobi. They include 12,500 blankets, 2,500 sets of cooking pots and other kitchen equipment as well as some 4,000 plastic sheets to shelter 20,000 displaced people in and around the capital.
In Maban, north-eastern South Sudan, just four UNHCR international staff and 11 national staff have been working with partners and refugees to continue to serve 120,000 refugees in four camps. They are making sure health services remain available, for example, and that water pumps are still working so refugees have access to both health care and clean water.
UNHCR and the UN World Food Programme have together distributed food rations to the refugees for 45 days instead of the normal 30 days, so that they will be able to eat if services are disrupted. "We are also in the process of distributing soap in all four camps. Given the dangerous and fast-changing nature of operating in South Sudan, we are stretching resources and working to fill any gaps in service," Fleming said.
The refugee agency is also preparing to return personnel to Yida in Unity state, where three national staff and partners have been continuing to serve the 77,000 refugees in Yida and Ajuong Thok camps close to the Sudan border. That plan is contingent on the deployment of additional UN peace-keepers.
Operating in Unity state remains dangerous and unpredictable. Last week, UNHCR lost six pick-up trucks to looters, who also helped themselves to barrels of fuel and spare parts for vehicles and water pumps in Yida.
Despite the conflict in South Sudan, however, UNHCR has also registered 430 new refugees from South Kordofan state, Sudan, since December 22.
The South Sudan government has declared a state of emergency in Unity and Jonglei states. With opposition forces now controlling the Jonglei capital, Bor, a large government military contingent has moved north to Pariang - close to both Yida and Ajuong Thok refugee camps.
"As a result, we are greatly worried about any effects of the fighting on the refugees and on our ability to serve them. We remind all parties to the conflict that refugee camps must remain civilian in character," Fleming said.